Jeffrey LewisNorth Korea Will Test Nuclear Weapon

A North Korean official told a delegation of Japanese academics that North Korea will test a nuclear weapon. The Washington Post reports:

Yasuhiko Yoshida, a former U.N. proliferation expert and North Korea specialist at Osaka University of Economics and Law, said in a telephone interview that he had held two discussions on May 3 with North Korean officials at the Institute for Disarmament and Peace, a Pyongyang think tank linked to the North Korean Foreign Ministry. Yoshida said the key comment came during the second discussion—a phone call from the institute’s deputy director, Pak Hyon Jae, who Yoshida said used studied language and spoke through an interpreter. Pak, according to Yoshida, said a North Korean nuclear “test is indispensable,” adding, “You’ll find that out soon.”

The Post added that “word of the new North Korean threat came even as the Pyongyang government appeared to hint … that it may be willing to return, under certain conditions, to multilateral talks aimed at its nuclear disarmament.”


The Oxford English Dictionary defines a “threat” as “a declaration of hostile determination or of loss, pain, punishment, or damage to be inflicted in retribution for or conditionally upon some course … The radical sense appears to be ‘pressure applied to the will by declaration of the harm that will follow non-compliance’. It is thus indirect compulsion.”

I think this is a clear statement of an intent to test, full-stop.

Reporters have dutifully demurred that this may be a bluff. I don’t buy it. My guess is that Pyongyang has set in motion a process that will be very hard to turn back. I am not sure that a competent and vigorous administration could get this horse back in the barn (although it would be nice to have such an Administration to give it the old college try).

The intelligence community, according to press reports, has been accumulating evidence of North Korea’s intent to test a nuclear weapon. The New York Times recently reported:

White House and Pentagon officials are closely monitoring a recent stream of satellite photographs of North Korea that appear to show rapid, extensive preparations for a nuclear weapons test, including the construction of a reviewing stand, presumably for dignitaries, according to American and foreign officials who have been briefed on the imagery. [Emphasis mine]

Wow, how bad do you have to screw up to be assigned to observe the inaugural North Korean nuclear test? Maybe we’ll know Kim is bluffing by the invitations. How much prior notice does etiquette demand for dignataries invited to an NPT-violating nuclear test? Can we assume cheap cardstock indicates a bluff? Why do you get Arms Control Wonk when you need Miss Manners?

The New York Times has a video of David Sanger talking more specifically about the trench and viewing platform under construction. Sanger implied the North Koreans have drilled horizontal shaft into a mountain, while AP implied that a vertical shaft. Neither was presumably optimizing for an audience that knows the difference (and cares).

The Office of Technology Assessment explains the difference in terms of the US program:

Presently, an average of more than 12 tests per year are conducted at the Nevada Test Site. Each test is either at the bottom of a vertical drill hole or at the end of a horizontal tunnel. The vertical drill hole tests are the most common (representing over 90% of all tests conducted) and occur either on Yucca Flat or, if they are large-yield tests, on Pahute Mesa. Most vertical drill hole tests are for the purpose of developing new weapon systems. Horizontal tunnel tests are more costly and time-consuming. They only occur once or twice a year and are located in tunnels mined in the Rainier and Aqueduct Mesas. Tunnel tests are generally for evaluating the effects (radiation, ground shock, etc.) of various weapons on military hardware and systems.

The North Koreans, of course, could use either for a simple fission device or something small enough for a Taepo Dong 2. My curiosity is just that: curiosity.

The Pakistanis apparently used both vertical and horizontal shafts for tests. ISIS has before and after pictures of the Pakistani site.

Paul Adds:

A similar, but more credible, source indicates that North Korea is not going to test. In a 19 April Hankyoreh Shinmun Seoul article, Selig Harrison describes a meeting with President of the Supreme People’s Assembly Kim Yong Nam and a high-ranking North Korean general:

When I asked Kim Yong Nam how he knew North Korea’s nuclear weapons would work in the absence of a test, he replied, “The agencies concerned are convinced that they have all the preparations made properly, and that our nuclear weapons are operational.” But General Ri Chan Bok said, “there’s no need for a test, and we don’t want to have one, even one underground, because of the fallout. Without a test, our nuclear deterrent will be functional. We are ready to put warheads on our missiles whenever we want.”


  1. Max Postman (History)

    I think this story has one big hole in it that, so far, I haven’t seen anyone talking about.

    The man who provided this information to press, Yashuko Yoshida, got it from “North Korean officials at the Institute for Disarmament and Peace, a Pyongyang think tank LINKED to the North Korean Foreign Ministry” (Emphasis mine).

    The nature of this link is never explained. Meanwhile, the story is being reported as if the declaration of intent to test a nuclear weapon had come from the North Korean government itself.

    The United States government will often comission research from think tanks. If the Heritage Foundation reported that the US was, say, pulling out of Iraq, you could say that the information came from “a Washington D.C. think tank linked to the United States Department of Defense.”

    Absent further information on the “link” between this think tank and the North Korean Foreign Ministry, I think its wrong to treat this declaration as if it came from someone in the North Korean government.

  2. Mark Gubrud (History)

    As we discuss the dry terms of arms control, it is easy to forget that what we are really talking about is global war and peace.

    The North Korean test, which we hear will likely come within the next few weeks, will open the political space (here) for an Israeli/US attack on Iran, which is also reportedly being prepared for the same time frame. Rademaker’s opening blast at the NPT conference declared US rejection of the terms Iran has offered the EU3; the issue would appear to be politically deadlocked (and loaded).

    Despite all indications that Iran would not have a bomb before sometime in the next decade, a military counterproliferation strike will have to be carried out (if at all) before Bushehr (a purely civilian nuclear power plant which could nevertheless provide a source of poor but weapons-usable plutonium) starts up; preferably before fueling, and preferably before fuel delivery, which we hear is scheduled for Fall.

    The probable initial Israeli strike will likely trigger Iranian retaliation, US follow-on strikes or even a limited-objectives land invasion, a Shiite uprising in Iraq, and a wider Mideast war.

    It is looking like this may be a long (God help us), hot summer.

  3. Max Postman (History)

    This is an extremely serious event (though that’s no excuse for misleadingly vague reporting). However, I have to disagree about the likeliness of the above scenario.

    Two possible consequences of a North Korean nuclear test, which are not necesarilly mutually incompatible, are presented. First, that a test would create political will for military action against Iran in the United States. Second, that it would “probably” lead to an Israeli strike, which would have massive consequences.

    1) A North Korean nuclear test would by no means necesarilly make an attack on Iran a politically viable position. Certainly, it would make such a position somewhat more persuasive.

    However, as correctly pointed out above, an attack on Iran would likely necessitate some kind of ground attack. This is, at least in part, because of the possibility of the situation described by The American Conservative: an Iranian deployment of the Revolutionary Guard against American soldiers in Iraq, accompanied by Iranian sleeper agents “urging” the Shiite uprising described above as well.
    Given the lack of progress in Iraq, I think it’s fair to say that a ground war in a hostile, Islamic state is not going to be a winner political issue any time soon. Assuming (probably fairly) that such an initiative came from the Republican party, the Democrats, who have been fighting every fight they can since the election, would at least in part strongly oppose an attack. Making the case for such an attack would require finite political capital that neither Bush nor the Republicans have.
    It’s important to remember how low approval of Bush’s handling of the Iraq war is lately not to mention how his “mandate” seems to have been nothing but a fictitous boast. Moreover, such an initiative would be unlikely to receive the vigorous support of the Republicans it would need to succeed. The current partisan battle over the fillibuster, one of the most intense and controversial in years, demands their political capital.

    In short, even in the wake of a North Korean nuclear test, a US attack on Iran is less than likely. The prospect of such an attack is too unappealing, and the probable advocates of the attack, Bush and the Republicans, are not currently in a political position to advocate another unappealing policy.

    2) The second scenario, an Israeli strike against Iran, seems far more likely. The scale of the conflict that would likely erupt as a result would probably force some sort of US intervention. In order to consider how likely an Israeli strike would be, one has to consider two questions: First, whether political will exists within Israel to make such an attack a possibility. Second, whether America, which would obviously be opposed to such an attack by Israel because of the aforementioned consequences, would be able to use it’s influence to persuade Israel not to attack Iran. These are questions that will have to be considered.

  4. Kingdaddy (History)

    Both of your scenarios display the weaknesses of the United States in dealing with Iran. The best encapsulation of defects of a US or Israeli strike I’ve read is in November’s Atlantic Monthly, a fascinating account of the results of a role-playing exercise involving several seasoned national security professionals. You have to have a subscription to read the article, but the slides from the exercise are, for some reason, publicly available:

    And I agree with your first post 100%. It’s time to purge the word “link” from news coverage and analysis. It’s completely meaningless, obscuring more than it reveals.

  5. Thomas Nephew (History)

    Well, “linked” or not, there’s that site and those reviewing stands. I think it fits, and we’re screwed.

    Not only that, but we can look forward to various and sundry wingnut columnists telling us it’s all Bill Clinton’s fault, or maybe FDR’s.

  6. Mark Gubrud (History)

    I don’t want to advocate the scenario I sketched. I don’t want it to come true. The main reason I think it is more likely than not is because startup of Bushehr will close the window for militarily denying Iran the ability to produce any kind of fissile material.

    To clarify, though, my assumption is that the Israeli strike plans are fully coordinated with US policy and military preparations for follow-on strikes following an Iranian response. The NK test will open the political space for the US to strongly endorse the Israeli action publicly as soon as it occurs. Iran will then face a range of bad choices: do nothing, and the regime loses face. Unleash a huge wave of pinprick terror attacks on Israel, and Sharon gets cut free of his play handcuffs (Roadmap, Gaza withdrawal). Hit Israel with a chem or bioweapon, and Israel retaliates with a nuke (targeted on a military or nuclear facility; welcome to the 21st Century). Do anything against the US in Iraq or anywhere else, and Bush gets to do whatever it takes to finish the job. How many Democrats do you expect will not vote for the war resolution?

    (And why do you think Bush wants Bolton in New York so badly? To “reform” the UN? It’s hard to think of anyone less likely to win support for a US version of reform. His job will be to tell the world to go to Hell.)

    I’ve read Fallows’ piece in the Atlantic. I’m assuming the neocons want to ignore its conclusions, and carry out something very much like the scenario discussed: Go in, search and destroy military and nuclear sites, and exit, leaving the Iranians to sort themselves out.

  7. Edward Sacharuk (History)

    First time visitor, interesting site. I have a question, and it’s not rhetorical. If any of you has an answer I’d like to hear it.

    The original nukes were Big Boy and Fat Man. They were enormous and had relatively low yields. A while ago I read about a former nuke designer who now has seen the light and works to prevent nuclear war (forgot his name). At any rate, he worked on trying to reduce the size of nukes. At the time he thought it was extremely interesting and challenging work. It took years to get their size down to where they are now.

    So my question is, just because NK has nukes, and just because they have long range missiles, why do we automatically assume that they’ll be able to stick the nukes on the missiles, get the missiles to fly accurately, and then to explode at the appropriate spot? Seems to me it took a great deal of experimentation and testing for the US and Soviets to get this to all work.

    Isn’t there a real possibility that NK is simply bluffing? Even worse, isn’t it possible that the US military is hyping the threat to justify an ever increasing defense budget, space based weapons, and so forth? Similar arguments apply to Iran, although I don’t think they even have long range missiles yet.

  8. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    I talked a little about the process of miniaturizing plutonium implosion warheads in a post titled (sensibly, I think): “Can North Korea Mate a “Simple” Fission Weapon to the Taepo Dong 2?”

    The short answer is that I agree with you. DIA estimates the smallest warhead North Korea could plausibly design would weight 650-750 kg. Such a warhead — just small enough for the Taepo Dong 2 — would probably require testing.

  9. Edward Sacharuk (History)

    Thanks, yes your article basically told me all I wanted to know. As I said, “first time visitor”. Excellent site and I’ll have to spend some time going through your archives.

    But really you have to wonder about the motives for all this crud. China seems to not care about NK and lets them play their childish games, presumably they assume the country will implode long before they are a real threat to anyone. But not the US, oh no.

    Is it all a part of keeping the US populace hyped and fearful about the outside world, and keeping an ever larger flow of cash running through the pipeline to the Pentagon? Color me cynical.